Sever Tipei / Illinois Composers’ Forum

Yesterday afternoon, Professor of Music Sever Tipei presented at the Illinois Composers’ Forum on recent projects and research.

Sever offered a demonstration of SoundMaker–an additive sound synthesis engine with a web-based interface–which readers can explore at (requires that users establish a free account).  The program, written in C++, enables composers to generate sounds “from scratch,” which Sever prefers over sampling already-created sounds.

Sever’s method of composition is to combine these sounds (data) with algorithm (programmed rules) to create compositions without further human intervention in the loop.  Artistic “intuition,” Sever says, thus occurs in the sounds created and chosen as data, in the composition programming, and in any adjustments to the programming that occur after its results, its compositions, are heard — never in the altering of the composition so generated itself.

Sever also discussed a course in Musical Informatics that he developed over the Summer with the aid of a small grant.  His goal in the course is to revolutionize the teaching of music theory: to teach through primitive, abstracted concepts rather than higher-order concepts that are associated with particular musical styles and examples.  This new approach to musical theory helps to orient students to composition more independently, so that their sense of what is possible in music is not pre-determined by historical technique and example.  In his teaching as well as in his own practice, Sever is after achieving a truly contemporary aesthetic.  His aesthetic has been most strongly influenced by the theory of John Cage (e.g., Silence, A Year from Monday, M, Empty Words, X, 1961-1982) and Iannis Xenakis (i.e., Formalized Music: Thought and Mathematics in Composition: Pendragon Press, 1992).

Sever’s defines his own contemporary aesthetic as inherently secular, broadly along the lines of a modern, intellectual scientific worldview.  Art, he says, whether one admits it or not, whether one of self-conscious of it or not, always expresses a “worldview.”  This worldview is communicated through the structure of the “parallel reality,” the “imaginary,” the artist creates in his or her work.  This parallel reality reflects the artist’s view of an actual real, which is significant for at least three reasons.

First, it means that mathematics becomes an ideal “tool” for creating a parallel reality, since mathematics is the best tool for studying an actual real.  Mathematics serves as a basis for abstracted musical theory, the kind Sever uses to teach and create composition.

Second, it means that the parallel realities that artists create express an ethics and artists are responsible for the ethics their creations express.

Third, it means that a parallel reality is, like an actual real (what Sever might call “the” actual real), a complex, dynamic system.  In such a complex, dynamic system, Sever believes there is no inherent hierarchy, no inherent destiny.  Yet, there are laws of consequence, “laws of physics,” of action and reaction, that determine how one object or event acts upon another.   In his computer-aided composition, Sever represents this principle as a “template,” or “framework,” of “static symmetry” that runs throughout a “version” (what might more traditionally be called a “piece,” except that Sever intends to designate an ongoing composition over the past 20 years that generates new versions of the whole rather than separate and distinct pieces of original matter).  On “the surface” of such static symmetry, Sever creates one or more layers of “probability,” of “chance,” that follow only “statistical laws of distribution.”  These top layers represent his sense of the probability governing regular occurrence in addition to the “laws of physics.”

The ephemeral nature of such an existence, of sensation and of human life, is captured in Sever’s desire to treat the public performance of each version (of the Manifold as a whole) as a singular event that, after it is done,  is not to be repeated.  Such repetition would reify (and could lead to the commodification of) the piece, turn it into a fetish object, rather than allow it to affect in the moment and be no more.

Ultimately, Sever’s dream is to create a Brewing, in which a composition would be continually created computationally, never ceasing.  The composer might open the lid of the “black box” of the programmed environment to occasionally reveal what is being made and remade along principles of interaction as inexorable as physics and as unpredictable as chance.

— Kelly Searsmith